Q. and A.: Ken Liu on Science Fiction and Chinese History

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‘Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes its inspiration from the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from East Asian antiquity.’

In 2012, “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story by the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, became the first work of fiction to win all three major English-language science fiction awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. It explores the experience of growing up between two cultures, through the eyes of a boy whose mother came to the United States as a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. As he grows older, he comes to resent her for burdening him with her non-American ways — until an unexpected event forces him to reconsider what a mother’s love means.

Mr. Liu’s debut novel, “The Grace of Kings,” published in April, is a reimagining of Chinese history, in which two young men set out to revolutionize the archipelago kingdom they call home, only to turn into rivals. The author has described the novel as silkpunk, a riff on the “steampunk” genre of fantasy writing that incorporates 19th-century design and technology.

Mr. Liu, who was born in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, migrated with his parents to the United States when he was 11 and went on to earn bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. In addition to writing and translating, he works as a litigation consultant on cases involving technology. In an interview, he discussed the literary uses of history, blending Western and Chinese traditions, and the meaning of silkpunk.

Q.

How did Chinese history inspire your new novel?

A.

“The Grace of Kings” is an epic fantasy reimagining of the Chu-Han Contention [the period between the Qin and Han dynasties, 202-206 B.C.]. It’s not alternate history or time travel. Rather, the major plot points of history are reimagined in a brand new fantasy world with new characters, new technologies, new politics and new cultures.

Yet, some of the themes from [the Han dynasty historian] Sima Qian’s historical account persist in the reimagining. The hope is that the reimagining will offer a critique of that source, as well as of the conventions of epic fantasy.

Q.

What difficulties did you face weaving a historical account with more traditional fantasy elements?

A.

One of the most interesting issues I had to deal with is how much of the power imbalances of history to replicate in fiction. We have never had a society that was truly just. Some groups have always benefited at the expense of others. Women, for example, were an oppressed group at the time of the Chu-Han Contention, though some prominent women were able to exercise power in ways both traditional and nontraditional.

Epic fantasy based on European sources has also traditionally replicated the relative powerlessness of women in medieval Europe, though often such works don’t get the nuances of how women did exercise power correct. In any event, this is a trend that’s being challenged by many writers nowadays.

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